Maria Mitchell: First Woman Astronomer in America

The first woman astronomer in America was Maria Mitchell. She was born on 1 August 1818 at No. 1 Vestal Street in Nantucket, Massachusetts, a year or so after Jane Austen died in Winchester, England. Maria’s father was William Mitchell, a cooper who then became a schoolteacher and her mother, Lydia Coleman, a library worker. Maria was the third of ten children and like others, such as the famous Hetty Green of Wall Street, Maria was raised Quaker.

Maria Mitchell

Maria Mitchell looking through a telescope. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Maria became interested in astronomy because of her father’s longtime interest in the topic, and the whole family developed an awareness of the heavens and planets because of his interest in the celestial stars. Of all the children Maria was perhaps the most interested. In fact, according to the Omaha Daily Bee:

“Maria Mitchell … used to climb to the roof of the family home just before ‘sand man time’ every summer evening to ‘watch the pretty stars.’ Long before she 10 years old the little maid knew the heavens and relative locations of the stars.”[1]

Mitchell family home in Nantucket. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

As the children grew each child was drafted into the service of helping their father during his heavenly observations. However, Maria’s interest seemed to outweigh those of her siblings and that resulted in her becoming her “father’s assistant” and counting seconds using a chronometer. It was said that she then operated under her father’s watchful eye:

“[I]n 1831, during the total eclipse … Mr. Mitchell removed the sash of a parlor window of the home to make an observation and while he performed this task his 12-year-old daughter counted the seconds for him. … fifty-four years later, [she] mentioned the fact that she again counted the seconds during a total solar eclipse, but with a class of eager Vassar students … instead of her beloved father.”[2]  

Maria Mitchell soon found she loved astronomy and devoted herself to studying the subject in her spare time. That was more easily achieved after the Mitchell family home was outfitted for these celestial observations:

“For twenty years a little closet, 3×4, located in the family house served as her study. It was fitted with a shelf and a chair, and here she did all her work until she made professor of astronomy and director of the observations upon the founding of Vassar in 1863.”[3]

Maria Mitchell home office

Maria Mitchell’s home office. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Although Maria Mitchell was interested in the stars, she had to earn a living and in 1835 she opened her own school for girls. In meantime, she remained busy increasing her knowledge of the world:

“Soon she was studying Bowditch’s Practical Navigator, reading the works of Lagrange [just like Sophie Germain did], Laplace, and Legendre in French, puzzling over Latin passages in Gauss’ Theoria Motus Corporeum Coelestium, and teaching herself German. The lyceum lectures of Emerson, William Ellery Channing [who corresponded with Lucy Aikin], Theodore Parker, Lucy Stone, and Horace Greeley furthered her intellectual awakening.”[4]

In the meantime, her father had begun working as a bank cashier at the Pacific Bank but because of his and his daughter’s heavenly observations, they gained the attention of some important people. Among those who noticed the work of Maria Mitchell and her father were William C. Bond, director of the Harvard College observatory and the superintendent of the United States Coast Survey, Alexander Dallas. This attention also resulted in William Mitchell being able to supplement his income by providing calculations for the U.S. Coast Survey and Maria became his valuable assistant.

By 1836 she had begun working as the first librarian at the Nantucket Atheneum. Fortunately, the institution had limited operating hours, opening in the afternoons and occasionally in the evenings. This light schedule allowed Maria to assist her father in his observations during her free time and to make their cosmic observations, the two relied upon the roof of the bank where William Mitchell worked on Main Street. There they used a four-inch equatorial telescope. It allowed them to look for nebulae and double stars, and, in addition, they also reported on the latitudes and longitudes by calculating the altitudes of stars and the culminations and occultations of the moon, respectively.

Maria Mitchell had also been in the habit for years of going to the family observatory and “sweeping” the telescope across the heavens each night. That is precisely what she did on 1 October 1847, despite have dined with guests, she excused herself and retreated to the observatory. At 10:50pm while the 29-year-old was searching the skies she discovered Comet 1847 VI (modern designation C/1847 T1).

Using a Dolland, “a forty-six inch refractor [telescope], with an aperture of three inches, mounted on a tripod, and furnished with a terrestrial eye-piece of moderate power,”[5] Maria noticed an unknown object. She saw it in a spot where she had not previously noticed any celestial activity. She thought it must be a comet and rushed to tell her father. He returned, looked, and affirmed she was right. She then “recorded the comet’s coordinates ― a set of measurements used to indicate a position in space ― so that other astronomers could find it.”[6] Her discovery was made known to others the following day. “Two days later the comet was seen by the observer at Rome. On the 7th of the month it was noticed at Kent, England, and on the 11th at Hamburg.”[7]

Maria Mitchell telescope

Maria Mitchell’s telescope. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

She also published her discovery in Silliman’s Journal under her father’s name in January 1848 and the next month to ensure that she would be credited with having found the comet her calculations of its orbit were submitted. This was an amazing feat by a woman because the only previous women to have discovered a comet were astronomers Maria Margarethe Kirch (a German astronomer famous for her writings on the conjunction of the sun with Saturn, Venus, and Jupiter and for her discovery on 21 April 1702 of the so-called “Comet of 1702”) and Caroline Herschel (another German astronomer who discovered the periodic comet 35P/Herschel–Rigollet on 21 December 1788).

Unfortunately, a question of who first discovered the comet soon arose. Francesco de Vico had independently discovered the same comet but unfortunately, for him he did so two days after Maria. However, he had been the first person to report the sighting to European authorities. Because there were questions as to who had discovered the comet Bond of Harvard got involved and eventually “the world admitted that the real discoverer of the comet was Maria Mitchell with her little telescope, the ‘Little Dolland,’ on the roof her Nantucket home.”[8]

Maria Mitchell

Maria Mitchell. Courtesy of Vassar College.

Maria’s find meant that she was the first American woman to discover a comet and people soon began calling it “Miss Mitchell’s Comet.” Her discovery also resulted in the event being celebrated at the first women’s rights convention held in July 1848, known as the Seneca Falls Convention. In addition, “she became the first (and, until 1943, apparently the only) woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Boston.”[9]

Other international awards and accolades for Maria’s discovery followed. For instance, King Christian VIII of Denmark awarded her a gold medal in 1848 inscribed with line 257 of Book I of Virgil’s Georgics: “Non Frustra Signorum Obitus Speculamur et Ortus”[10] (English: Not in vain do we watch the setting and the rising [of the stars]). It was the first time he gave an American an award and the first time he gave any woman an award.

Of her new-found celebrity, Maria Mitchell wrote what she thought about it. This occurred after she attended a convention held by the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, probably in 1855:

“It is really amusing to find one’s self lionized in a city where one has visited quietly for years; to see the doors of fashionable mansions open wide to receive you, which never opened before. I suspect that the whole corps of science laughs in its sleeves at the farce.”[11]

The same year that the 1855 convention was held was the same year Maria’s mother suddenly became ill. She partially recovered but required general care over the next six years until she died in 1861. A few months after her death, a grieving Maria and her father moved to Lynn, Massachusetts. Maria then purchased a small house, and in the rear, she erected a little observatory that she had brought with her from Nantucket.

Maria Mitchell might have passed her life quietly in Lynn if she had not received an unexpected offer. Matthew Vassar, a wealthy Poughkeepsie brewer, was opening a women’s college named Vassar Female College,* a second degree-granting institution of higher education for women in the United States. The first person he wanted on the college’s staff was Maria and to entice her to accept his offer, he promised to build an observatory and put her in charge. (It would be an observatory with the third largest telescope in the country, one that was 12 inches.)

Matthew Vassar. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Maria had never attended college and was hesitant to accept his offer. However, in the end, she did, making her the first female professor of astronomy. She also wanted to work with women partly because “the barriers to women in science were high, limiting even to those on the periphery of the scientific community as illustrators, textbook authors, and herbarium owners.”[12]

Maria Mitchell first students

Maria Mitchell’s first students at Vassar. Courtesy of Vassar College.

Maria and her father then moved to Poughkeepsie and were there when Vassar opened its doors. Of her abilities as a professor it was written:

“Though Maria Mitchell was to prove not only the best-known but also one of the greatest of Vassar’s teachers, her colleagues soon realized that her ways were radically different from the norm. She ignored the conventional grading system and said, ‘You cannot mark a human mind because there is no intellectual unit.’ … ‘We cannot accept anything as granted beyond the first mathematical formulae,’ she told her students. ‘Question everything else.’ She insisted on their learning, not by rote, but from observation.”[13]

Maria Mitchell in 1865. Courtesy of Vassar College.

Maria’s differently and unique teaching style meant that she also wanted Vassar to be on the cutting edge when it came to astronomy. She did not want to do the same things other schools did. She was forward thinking and wanted the Vassar staff to be forward thinking too. This is indicated by what she wrote on 31 October 1866:

“Our faculty meetings always try me in this respect: we do things that other colleges have done before. We wait and ask for precedent. If the earth had waited for a precedent, it never would have turned on its axis!”[14]

While at Vassar, she also continued to achieve groundbreaking achievements for women by conducting her own research into the heavens. In addition, she pioneered the idea of sunspots and faculae photographs being taken daily. She also published numerous articles on solar eclipses or on surface changes seen on the planets of Saturn or Jupiter.

Maria had also earlier taken a trip abroad. It happened between 1857 and 1858 during which time she visited several intellectuals and scientists. Among those she called on were Sir John Herschel (nephew to Caroline Herschel), Alexander von Humboldt (a Prussian polymath, geographer, naturalist, explorer, and proponent of Romantic philosophy and science), and Mary Somerville (a Scottish science writer and polymath). After her return, the U.S. Nautical Office then employed Maria as a field researcher and expert.


Caroline Herschel at 78, one year after winning the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1828. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

While teaching at Vassar, Maria undertook a second trip abroad in 1873. This time she visited the great Russian observatory at Pulkova. She wrote of her visit:

“Most observatories are temples of silence, and quiet reigns. As we drove into the grounds at Pulkova, small crowd of children of all ages, and servants of all degrees, came out to meet us. They did not come out to do us honor, but to gaze at us … All about the grounds … were small observatories, ― little temples, ― in which young men were practising for observations on the transit of Venus.”[15]

In addition, during her trip of 1873 she reported on a rather humorous anecdote that was later found in her papers:

“When crossing the Atlantic, an Irish woman came to me and asked me if I told fortunes; and when I replied in the negative, she asked me if I were not an astronomer. I admitted that I made efforts in that direction. She then asked me what I could tell, if not fortunes, I told her that I could tell when the moon would rise, when the sun would rise, etc. She said, ‘Oh,’ in a tone which plainly said, ‘Is that all?’”[16]

Maria Mitchell at her desk. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Maria Mitchell served as a professor at Vassar College for 23 years before she retired due to failing health in January of 1888. Soon after, numerous letters poured in expressing the “reverence and love” that the faculty and students had for her. Vassar’s appreciation of her was also demonstrated when they made her a professor emeritus and offered her a lifetime home in the observatory, an offer she refused. Maria instead returned to Lynn and it was there that she died at the age of 71 on 28 June 1889 from a “brain disease.”

After her death the Brooklyn Daily Eagle noted the following:

“Professor Whitney, her successor … says of her: ‘She was devoted to the education of young women because she wished their lives to be governed by the harmonies of truth rather than the vagaries of tradition; by the ‘infinities’ rather than the ‘infinitesimals.’ The law of nature embodied in conscience was as vivid to her mind as the law of the revolving planet. If she saw an action to be right, she went to its performance with as direct a course as a star to its culmination.”[17]  

*After a year, Matthew Vassar removed the word Female from the name, which prompted some residents of Poughkeepsie to remark that he believed it might one day admit male students. The did happen but not until 1969.


  • [1] Omaha Daily Bee, “Pertaining to Woman in the Home and Business,” April 21, 1907, p. 4.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] E. T. James, ed., Notable American Women 1607-1950: A Biographical Dictionary, 3 vols. 2 (Cambridge: The Belknap Press, 1974), p. 555.
  • [5] E. Loomis, The Recent Progress of Astronomy (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1851), p. 109.
  • [6] S. S. McPherson and H. Mitchell, Rooftop Astronomer: A Story about Maria Mitchell, Creative Minds Biographies (Minneapolis: Lerner Publishing Group, 2011), p. 30–31.
  • [7] Omaha Daily Bee, p. 4.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] E. T. James, ed., p. 555.
  • [10] S. S. McPherson, and H. Mitchell. 2011, p. 33.
  • [11] M. Mitchell and P. M. Kendall, Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters, and Journals (Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1896), p. 22.
  • [12] P. G. Abir-Am, D. Outram and M. W. Rossiter, Uneasy Careers and Intimate Lives: Women in Science, 1789-1979 (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1987), p. 129.
  • [13] E. T. James, ed., p. 555–56.
  • [14] M. Mitchell, and P. M. Kendall. 1896, p. 174.
  • [15] Ibid., p. 207.
  • [16] Ibid., p. 220.
  • [17] The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, “Building an Observatory to Honor Woman Astronomer,” 19 June 19190, p. 6.

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